Judging the politics of awards shows

 With award season upon us and some controversy about political speeches, Eimear Dodd suggests that award shows might provide a platform to start a wider conversation.

A friend once told me that the word ‘should’ is often used to imply a judgement. The shoulds define how one ought to behave in a situation. The shoulds lay out the limits of social appropriateness.

To say that a person should not talk about politics when accepting an award is then a judgement about their adherence to a version of society’s rules.

There is a value judgement at play here. It is a view that relies heavily on established conventions of behaviour.

At its core, the argument is one that supports the status quo. It says you can’t do anything to change things. You should accept your lot with a certain amount of quiet gratitude.


This isn’t an argument against gratitude. It’s true that there is a lot to be grateful about in most lives. This is as true for the Hollywood elite as it is for ordinary people. There will often be someone worse off.

But, gratitude doesn’t have to be uncritical. Rather, there are situations where uncritical gratitude can be harmful.   

During the recent Irish recession, there was a sense that anyone with a job should be grateful to have one. It became inappropriate to say anything that suggested you were unhappy with your work.

To challenge your employer about long hours or a heavy workload was unacceptable. Poor conditions and ridiculous demands had to be tolerated.

At the root was an unspoken judgement of the rules. If you stepped out of line, there’d be plenty of others who’d be only too happy to take your place.

The same is true of Hollywood awards. Use your speech to highlight an injustice and you may find it could cost you your career.


Win may not solely be about excellence

It’s worth remembering here that awards are not objective measures of excellence. At best, they are a subjective choice from a limited selection of artistic works.  

Consider the example of the nominations for the Academy Awards. In 2016, the absence from the acting categories of actors of colour prompted the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

But the issues can go much deeper. A 2016 analysis by the Economist identified that the film industry as a whole has a problem with the underrepresentation of ethnic minorities. There are also well-documented problems with gender diversity and cultural sensitivity.  

The results can also be swayed by targeted campaigns. Producer Harvey Weinstein has developed tactics to increase the chances that his films will be nominated. His methods have achieved over 300 nominations for his films.



Equally, there might be a feeling that a particular actor is owed the award that year. Maybe they have been nominated and lost many times. Perhaps, they underwent some dramatic transformation for a particular performance.  

The awards themselves have a commercial purpose beyond recognising ability. Nominations and award successes can increase the financial returns of a film, though the Oscar bounce may not be as lucrative as before.

A win cannot be said to be objective. It often follows from a complicated chain of events or just blind luck.

World Science Fiction Society, image via The Hugo Awards



Hugo Awards and Sad Puppies

This can be seen in other areas. Over the last two years, a conservative movement known as Sad Puppies has been gaming the nominations for the Hugo Awards in favour of traditional science fiction.

Their campaign has been in opposition to the inclusion of work from diverse cultural backgrounds. They did achieve some successes despite strong criticism from some authors and readers.

However, the controversy has damaged the credibility of the biggest prize in science fiction and fantasy writing. It also demonstrates how contentious awards can be.

Either way, very few are lucky enough to achieve a status that gives them a platform from which to speak. Even if it’s for only a brief moment on a podium when they receive a prize. They have the attention of an audience that might be small or global. 


In some situations, silence isn’t a choice. It’s often necessary for survival. But in others, silence is a privilege. In these moments, the risk is that silence will be misinterpreted as tacit support.

Awards give the winner a moment on a platform. They can make a choice to use that to advocate on behalf of others. They can speak about ideas or organisations that matter or interest them.

They can also choose to say thank you and leave it at that. The shoulds ought to be taken only as guidelines whether they’re followed or not.

It can often be far more interesting when people speak. We can hear about their passions. Who knows, it might even start a wider conversation.




Feature Image by Rod Mader via Flickr Creative Commons


One comment

Leave a Reply